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Ladysmith Black Mambazo is a male choral group from South Africa that sings in the vocal style of isicathamiya and mbube. They rose to worldwide prominence as a result of singing with Paul Simon on his album, Graceland and have won multiple awards. They were formed by Joseph Shabalala in 1960 and became one of South Africa's prolific recording artists, with their releases receiving gold and platinum disc honours. The group has now become a mobile academy, teaching people about South Africa and its culture.
Joseph Shabalala formed Ladysmith Black Mambazo because of a series of dreams he had in 1964, in which he heard certain isicathamiya harmonies, isicathamiya being the traditional music of the Zulu people. Following their local success at wedding ceremonies, Shabalala entered them into isicathamiya competitions. The group were described as 'so good' that they were eventually forbidden to enter the competitions but were welcomed to entertain at them. Although they had been recognised as an isicathamiya group in 1964, they had been singing together since the early 1950s. They released their first album, Amabutho, in 1973. The album, along with many other releases by the group, received gold disc certification. Ladysmith Black Mambazo's collaboration with Paul Simon in 1986 paved the way for international releases, making them widely known across the world.
The first incarnation of Ladysmith Black Mambazo was Ezimnyama Ngenkani (The Black Ones), formed by Shabalala in December 1960. The members of the group were relatives (mostly brothers and cousins) of Shabalala, with many having sung with him while he was growing up on the farm where he was born. Although the group did sing well together and captured the sound of cothoza mfana (tip toe boys, a 1960s slang term for isicathamiya) and mbube groups of the time, they were unknown outside of the Ladysmith district. In 1964, Shabalala had a series of recurring dreams during his sleep, over a period of six months, featuring a choir singing in perfect harmony. Shabalala described this as a beautiful sound, and one not yet achieved by his group at the time. As a result, he reformed the group as Ladysmith Black Mambazo and taught them the harmonies from his dream. Shabalala invented the name from the hometown of his family, Ladysmith, KwaZulu-Natal; the black ox, considered to be the strongest farm animal; and mambazo, which means axe in the Zulu language, and is symbolic of the choir's ability to "chop down" the competition. Shabalala entered the group into isicathamiya competitions, held on Saturday nights in areas of Durban and Johannesburg. The group won nearly every competition that was held; eventually in 1973, they were forbidden to compete with the other choirs. They were, however, welcome to perform only. In 1967, the group began to make recordings for Radio Zulu, and then signed with West Nkosi in 1972; Nkosi was a member of the mbaqanga backing unit, Makgona Tsohle Band, and a music producer at Gallo Record Company. Ladysmith Black Mambazo released their first album the following year, Amabutho, which received gold status, and was the first album by a black musician or group in South Africa to do so. Their subsequent albums also received gold or platinum certification. With the release of their second album, they had become professional singers. In 1975, Shabalala converted to Christianity and the group released their first religious album, Ukukhanya Kwelanga, not long afterwards. It earned a double platinum disc award, and the group's repertoire came to be dominated by hymns, mostly Methodist. Their 1976 Ukusindiswa became one of their most popular religious albums. By 1981, the group's popularity was such that the apartheid government allowed the members to travel to Cologne, Germany as part of a Southern African music festival. The group toured West Germany and appeared on television, and learned some of the German language; the 1981 album Phansi Emgodini (1981) included the group singing in German on the track "Wir Grüssen Euch Alle". The following year, the group traveled back to Germany to appear on television during a quiz event, bringing about requests for more live appearances.
In 1985, Paul Simon traveled to South Africa in the hope of collaborating with black musicians for his Graceland album. Simon asked Ladysmith Black Mambazo to work with him, and they traveled to London to record. The first recording was "Homeless", composed by Shabalala with English lyrics by Simon. The group's 1986 Ezulwini Siyakhona refers to the encounter with Paul Simon in the liner notes. Graceland was released in May of that year, and although both Joseph Shabalala and Paul Simon were accused of breaking the cultural boycott of South Africa, the album became a huge success and sold 16 million copies and boosted further Ladysmith Black Mambazo's international image. This also paved the way for other African acts like Stimela and Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens to gain popularity amongst Western audiences. After Graceland, Simon acted as producer on three records for the group aimed at the American market, Shaka Zulu (1987), Journey of Dreams (1988) and Two Worlds, One Heart (1990). On the latter album, the group recorded with The Winans, Julia Fordham and George Clinton, among others. In 1988, Ladysmith Black Mambazo appeared in Michael Jackson's movie Moonwalker, where they performed The Moon Is Walking over the end credits. Ladysmith Black Mambazo was also featured in the Sesame Street song Put Down the Duckie. On 10 December 1991, Shabalala's brother and one of the bass members in the group, Headman Shabalala, was shot and killed by Sean Nicholas, a white off-duty security guard. His death was considered a racial killing by Paul Simon, who led the court proceedings against Nicholas. Shabalala stopped singing. Eventually, helped by his Christian beliefs, he returned to singing. Following the retirement of three more members in 1993, Shabalala recruited four of his sons into the group.
The Apartheid system was abolished in 1991. Many changes occurred within Ladysmith Black Mambazo following this; most notably the reformation of its members (see above). The release of Nelson Mandela after 27 years imprisonment brought about the group's first release in the post-Apartheid era, 1993's Liph' Iqiniso. The album's last track, "Isikifil' Inkululeko" ("Freedom Has Arrived"), was a celebration of the end of Apartheid. According to Shabalala, Nelson Mandela (shortly after his release from prison) publicly stated that "the members of Ladysmith Black Mambazo are South Africa's cultural ambassadors". In 1993, at the request of Nelson Mandela, Ladysmith Black Mambazo accompanied the future President of South Africa to the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo, Norway. Mambazo sang again at President Mandela's inauguration in May 1994. In 1998, the group recorded a special version of "Inkanyezi Nezazi" (The Star and the Wiseman) for a series of advertisements in Britain for Heinz. The adverts proved so popular that the group released the original 1992 version as a single; this was followed up by The Best of Ladysmith Black Mambazo: The Star and the Wiseman, a compilation release which was certified triple platinum, selling 1 million copies in Britain alone. The single reached #2 in the UK Pop Charts. They have since traveled the world and have recorded with performers such as Stevie Wonder, Dolly Parton, The Winans, Julia Fordham, George Clinton, B*Witched, The Corrs, Ben Harper, Josh Groban and many more and performing for Nelson Mandela, Pope John Paul II and the British royal family among many others.
As a follow-up to the release Lihl' Ixhiba Likagogo in 2000, the group began preparations for Wenyukela, another album of new material, in 2002. However, the making of the record underwent severe strain when, in May 2002, Shabalala's wife Nellie of thirty years (and lead singer in the allied group "Women of Mambazo"), was murdered in a church car park by a masked gunman. Shabalala's hand was injured trying to protect his wife. Joseph's son Vivian Nkosinathi was accused of hiring a hitman to murder his stepmother Nellie. During the court trial, Nkosinathi supposedly testified that the South African police offered some kind of reprieve if he would implicate his own father, Joseph, in the murder. Wenyukela, however, went ahead, as Shabalala recovered. Songs such as "Wenza Ngani?" ("How Did You Do That?") had a moral theme, such as racism. Others included "Fak' Ibhande" ("Don't Drink and Drive"), which warned of the dangers of alcohol and driving, "Wenyukela", which spoke of the resurrection of Jesus and how South Africans were nearly misled into killing each other during the 1994 elections, and "Selingelethu Sonke", a song asking for fair trade in Africa. The group had originally spoken of the issue of fair trade in the Oxfam campaign Make Trade Fair. They appeared as guests in "The Big Noise", a worldwide petition for fair trade. The success of Wenyukela in South Africa prompted its release in Britain in March 2003 on Wrasse Records. Following the repeated success of the album, the American-based Headsup International released the album in January 2004. In addition to the standard version, Headsup released the album in the Hybrid SACD format. The US release reportedly went platinum and it garnered the group their second Grammy Award. They also embarked on a three month tour of the United States. The group returned to Headsup with their 2005 release, No Boundaries, a collaboration with the English Chamber Orchestra which featured many classical standards (Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring, Ave Verum Corpus) and Mambazo tunes (Homeless, Awu, Wemadoda, Ngingenwe Emoyeni). Despite initial worry about European traditions and Zulu folklore, the album sold very well and was nominated for a Grammy Award.
Long Walk to Freedom, a celebration of 45 years together, was released by Ladysmith Black Mambazo on 24 January 2006. On the album (which also celebrated 20 years since Graceland), the group recorded with a multitude of artists including Zap Mama, Sarah McLachlan, Melissa Etheridge, Joe McBride, Natalie Merchant, Emmylou Harris, and Taj Mahal as well as South African musicians Lucky Dube, Phuzekhemisi, Bhekumuzi Luthuli, Nokukhanya, Thandiswa, Vusi Mahlasela and Hugh Masekela. Ladysmith Black Mambazo also expressed wishes to work with Paul Simon once more, twenty years on since Graceland. To support the promotion of the album and tour, Mambazo appeared on various television and radio programmes throughout January and February 2006. The group has also started a street team; this is currently exclusive to fans in the US and Canada. In April 2006, Mambazo collaborated with Josh Groban for his third studio album, Awake. The songs, "Weeping" and "Lullaby", featured a clear South African influence; lines from a Mambazo song, "Wangibambezela" ("Message from his Heart") were added to the backing track of "Weeping". Following this, in August 2006, Mambazo began working with Mavis Staples in a collaboration for Staples's new album. Whilst Mambazo toured the United States, the television program Saturday Night Live parodied the group in a TV Funhouse sketch, hosted by Dennis Haysbert, about failed Saturday morning cartoons starring black cartoon characters, one of which was a cartoon featuring the group called, Ladysmith Black Mambazo in Outer Space. Members of the group added commentary to the short for the DVD release of the SNL special, "The Best of TV Funhouse". On October 17, 2006, Ladysmith Black Mambazo performed a special concert, Long Walk to Freedom: An Evening with Ladysmith Black Mambazo. The night included special guest appearances by Sarah McLachlan, Natalie Merchant, The Mahotella Queens, Vusi Mahlasela, and Pete Seeger. In preparation for the show, The Mahotella Queens performed a special a cappella concert the previous night (October 16) in New York. For Bob Sinclar's third Africanism mix album, a sampled version of Ladysmith Black Mambazo's song "Isala Kutshelwa" (1985) was used in the song "Steel Storm". Ladysmith Black Mambazo was again nominated for two Grammy Awards in the 49th Annual Grammy Awards in 2007, for their album Long Walk to Freedom. The album was nominated in the categories Best Contemporary World Music Album and Best Surround Sound Production, but did not win. Ladysmith Black Mambazo's 2007 album, Ilembe, was released on February 26, 2007. It was released in South Africa initially, and issued in the United Kingdom on the Warner Jazz label on April 2, 2007 (under the title Ilembe - Our Tribute to King Shaka). The album featured new recordings such as "Ommu Beno Mmu" ("Somebody And Somebody"), "Sizobalanda" ("We Are Here") and "Iphel' Emasini" ("A Cockroach In The Milk" - Zulu proverb). The album was released in the United States on January 22, 2008, under the title Ilembe: Honoring Shaka Zulu.
There had been many questions on when founder, director, composer, and lead singer Joseph Shabalala would finally retire from his group. On January 23, 2008, Shabalala issued a statement on this. The full statement is reproduced below:
—Joseph Shabalala, January 23 2008
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Official Homepage: www.mambazo.com
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